South Sudan's warring leaders and their cronies have amassed fortunes — including foreign properties and stakes in international firms — while prosecuting a murderous conflict, George Clooney charged Monday.
After presenting the results of a detailed two-year inquiry to the media, Hollywood stars Clooney and Don Cheadle stopped by at the White House to discuss the crisis with President Barack Obama, a US official said.
South Sudan is the youngest country in Africa and support from the United States was instrumental in shepherding it into existence, but patience is running out with local leaders after it slipped back into civil war.
The latest bout of bloodshed erupted in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused former deputy Riek Machar of plotting a coup and has already claimed tens of thousands of lives and forced many more to flee their homes.
United Nations experts have blamed both Kiir and Machar's camps for reigniting the fighting and the world body is seeking to recruit forces for a stronger peace-keeping effort to protect civilians and aid workers.
But the report by The Sentry — a watchdog group founded by Clooney and rights activist John Prendergast — goes further in detailing the web of corruption sustaining and motivating the predatory behaviour of local leaders.
Appearing in Washington, Clooney accused the rival leaders of overseeing mass atrocity, starvation and rape "while plundering the state's resources and enriching themselves and their families."
At his side, Prendergast warned that South Sudanese officials "no longer take seriously the threats made by the United Nations, by the United States and others to impose consequences for their behaviour."
The report gives a detailed breakdown, backed by research on the ground and through international business networks, of the looting and describes a conflict that degenerated into a battle of resources between corrupt gangs.
In addition to publicising the allegations, The Sentry has passed its files to global enforcement bodies it hopes will use tools more normally used to go after organised crime or terror networks to punish the guilty.
Almost half of the population of South Sudan relies on food assistance for survival, and more than 800,000 South Sudanese have fled to neighbouring countries as refugees.
Countless villages have been burnt to the ground and human rights organisations say both government forces and Machar's rebels frequently use rape as a weapon of war.
The report said that while political rivalry is often blamed, the war's "key catalyst" is actually "competition for the grand prize — control over state assets and the country's abundant natural resources — between rival kleptocratic networks.
According to the report — entitled "War Crimes Shouldn't Pay" — this form of "competitive corruption" has dominated South Sudan's politics since long before the nation voted for independence in a 2011 referendum.
Both Kiir and Machar the report says, "benefit financially from the continuing war and have effectively ensured that there is no accountability for their human rights violations and financial crimes".
Top officials' families "often live in multimillion dollar mansions outside the country, stay in five-star hotels, reap the benefits of what appears to be a system of nepotism and shady corporate deals, and drive around in luxury cars — all while much of their country's population suffers from the consequences of a brutal civil war, and in many places, experiences near-famine condition."
It added that individuals and major firms outside South Sudan had facilitated the deadly corruption.
Top officials, it alleged, "could not maintain the status quo without the system of international banks, businesses, arms brokers, real estate firms, and lawyers who, knowingly or unknowingly, facilitate the violent kleptocracy that South Sudan has become."